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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The War on Words

By, Deborah Weiss

During the past year, several federal agencies – including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the National Counter Terrorism Center – have declared a war on words. Specifically, these agencies have issued memoranda discouraging their employees from naming the enemy in the War on Terror. The prohibition included words such as “jihad,” “Islamist,” “Islamofascism,” and “caliphate,” among others.

It’s not that the terms are inaccurate. Quite the contrary, as the agencies conceded, they often are used by the terrorists themselves. But they urged censorship all the same. Calling jihadists “holy warriors,” as they call themselves, is accurate, but it risks glorifying them. Moreover, even when used accurately, words like “Islamist” might be misinterpreted by moderate Muslims – who are henceforth to be known as “mainstream Muslims” – and should therefore be avoided so as not to offend anyone in the Muslim community. The phrase “Muslim community” should also be avoided.

To be sure, all the memos featured disclaimers stating that they were “not official policy.” But the fact that they were distributed on agency letterhead suggested at least a tacit endorsement of their content. Taken together, the memos marked a victory for government-imposed political correctness over clarity in the War on Terror.

That’s certainly how Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra saw it. On May 8, 2008, Hoekstra introduced an amendment to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that would prohibit government agencies from using any intelligence funding to enforce their new speech code. The amendment states: “None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act my be used to prohibit or discourage the use of the words or phrases ‘jihadist’, ‘jihad’, ‘Islamofascism’, ‘caliphate’, ‘Islamist’ or ‘Islamic terrorist’ by or within the intelligence community or the Federal Government.”

At first the amendment failed to make it out of committee. Consequently, 900 people signed a petition in protest. As a result, on July 16, 2008, the Intelligence Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2009, which included Hoekstra’s amendment, was presented to the full House of Representatives. This time the amendment passed in a 249-180 vote. All 180 opposing votes came from Democrats. Despite this opposition from their party’s leadership, 55 Democratic Congressmen voted in favor of the amendment.

During the floor debate, Rep. Hoekstra made a case for the critical importance of words in the conflict with Islamic terrorists. “Al Qaeda itself uses these terms to describe its fight against America, our allies, and moderate Muslims around the world,” Hoekstra noted. “Why then would we prohibit our intelligence professionals from using the same words to accurately describe Al Qaeda’s stated goals?”

Hoekstra also noted that the agencies’ memos suppress free speech. Citing death threats that jihadists routinely make to authors, cartoonists and journalists, he insisted that government agencies must not stifle free speech. Yet another danger of mandating political correctness, he observed, is that it would contribute to the politicalization of America’s national intelligence community.

On each of these counts, Hoekstra is correct. But more is at stake than free speech. The government’s memos preclude an honest and open discussion about the nature of our enemy. Terrorism in a tactic, but we are fighting those who subscribe to a dangerous ideology – radical Islam – that we ignore at our peril. It was not a coincidence that the Council on American Islamic Relations, a group with longstanding ties to Islamic terrorist organizations and an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal conspiracy to support Hamas, was one of the groups to applaud the government’s new terminology for terror.

Another problem with the unofficial speech codes is that, even as they will inhibit debate in the U.S., they will have no influence on the debate in the Middle East. Government officials can ban all the words they like, but jihadists will continue using them. What’s more, their Muslim audience will continue to look to religious leaders for the “proper interpretation” of Islam. Neither United States government officials, nor Westerners more broadly, will be considered authoritative on these matters.

Rep. Hoekstra’s amendment will not alter this reality. Nor is it likely to change the climate of political correctness that exists in our government agencies. Still, it is important symbolically. It demonstrates that at least some officials understand the nature of our enemy, as well as the strategic importance of naming the threat that America faces. When a similar bill comes to a vote in the Senate, let us hope its members will evince the same kind of courage.

Deborah Weiss is an attorney and regular contributor to


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